Judie Tzuke's 'The Chrysalis Recordings' Highlights Her Early ‘80s Transition to Synthpop
One day, perhaps, the collected works of Judie Tzuke, one of the United Kingdom's most prolific, long-serving, and interesting singer-songwriters, may be seriously reappraised. Until then, dive into The Chrysalis Recordings.
The Chrysalis Recordings
Cherry Red Records
22 May 2020
Rarely has an artist been so memorably introduced as Judie Tzuke was by the majestic title track of her first album, 1979's Welcome to the Cruise. Not only a superb song, but it also had an intoxicating grandeur courtesy of a lustrous orchestral arrangement by Ray Russell. The album wasn't quite standard singer-songwriter material, either. For a start, Tzuke's narrative voice was not always that of the confessional diarist – she tended to write enigmatic poesy or sketch intriguing character studies (see "Black Furs" from I Am the Phoenix or the title track of Sports Car). Her songs, even the ballads, avoided sentimental pitfalls, glibness, or synthetic emotion. "Welcome to the Cruise" was stately in pace and yet not quite a ballad, all intricate rhythms, and mysterious soulfulness, with a coolly distant, almost celestial lead vocal. Tzuke's singing conveyed feeling and atmosphere with minimal use of vibrato.
One day, perhaps, the collected works of Tzuke, one of the United Kingdom's most long-serving, prolific and interesting singer-songwriters, may be seriously reappraised. While she has no shortage of admirers, she's not an artist about whom the critical elite get excited. Who knows why? Is it the look she sported at the outset of her career which they might have interpreted, reductively, as "blonde rock-chick", although it was never contrived or cynical enough to merit that tag? Or is it the fact that, like Joan Armatrading, she's the queen of the bargain-basement section of second-hand record shops – probably a consequence of the popularity and healthy UK distribution her albums had at the time of their release? Whatever the case, her talents have held up decade after decade. Her profile did get a boost a couple of years ago when she teamed up with Beverley Craven and Julia Fordham for the trio album Woman to Woman while also promoting a solo album of her own, Peace Has Broken Out.
Tzuke was one of the most promising artists on Rocket Records, Elton John's label. Sir Elton, or his A&R people, showed discerning judgment with many of their discoveries, snapping up Brenda Russell (as part of a duo with then-husband, Brian) and Gary Wright's talented sister, Lorna. Tzuke had had a showbiz-tinged childhood in central London, with parents who worked in acting, property development, and artist management. She had that most crucial of assets – a distinctive voice – and after a false start on Tony Visconti's Good Earth label, she began in earnest in 1979.
Throughout her career, Tzuke's flexible, versatile singing has made light work of soul, rock, synthpop, dance, and folkish singer-songwriter – all musical languages in which she writes quite fluently, usually with co-authors. Unfortunately, she only scored one big hit single – "Stay With Me Till Dawn" – but it has been enough to sustain her as an albums-artist ever since. It's become something of a radio evergreen, with fame and popularity going far beyond its original low-Top 20 chart placing.
Tzuke's music has enjoyed some thoughtful CD treatments in recent years, including the double anthology, Moon on a Mirrorball and the mammoth, 24-disc complete-works set, Full Moon. Though the albums on this new collection have been reissued before (more than once, in fact), this is the first time they've been framed so neatly. Her time at Chrysalis was phase two of Tzuke's career, and Shoot the Moon (1982), her debut for the label, elaborates on some of the musical and lyrical themes of her first three albums.
"Heaven Can Wait" is the syncopated, dreamlike introduction, memorably likening unrequited love to a failing radio signal, Tzuke calling, "hello... hello" plaintively into the ether. The stunning "Love on the Border" appears to describe falling in love as a perilous crossing from one territory to another. Its arrangement is full of frantic energy, with a careening, energetic chorus. The cumulative effect of the sequencing of the first three tracks, going from moderato to allegro to presto, is what originally made Shoot the Moon so gripping. "Information", the third track, comes on like gangbusters. Her rhythm section's inclination to rock a bit harder than expected is one of the reasons Tzuke was able to find followers among some interesting demographics. She had, for example, the support of Kerrang magazine even though, even in her most febrile moments, she could never have been described as metal.
Tzuke co-wrote Shoot the Moon with guitarist/collaborator Mike Paxman, although there is one co-write with producer/husband Paul Muggleton and keyboard player, Bob Noble. It made a respectable showing in the UK album charts. Among its plentiful highlights is "Late Again", an understated ballad whose chord progressions recall choral music. "Liggers at Your Funeral" is one of Tzuke's pithy observational songs, thought to be about the people who assembled at Peter Sellers' send-off. With its unsparing and bleak view of human nature ("ligger" being a slang-word for opportunistic freeloader), it brings goosebumps to the flesh. Cherry Red have included the bonus tracks issued on prior CD versions of Shoot the Moon; two b-sides and two demos.
A year or so later, came 1983's Ritmo. Although synths had been used throughout Shoot the Moon, they were fairly discreet. On Ritmo, they moved to the foreground. Listened to as the fifth installment in Tzuke's series of albums, Ritmo can seem chilly and remote. Its proliferation of keyboard sounds may disappoint listeners expecting the Paul Buckmaster arrangements and the organic-sounding rhythm section of Tzuke's first album. Taken on its own, however, it works. If anything, the willingness of Tzuke, Paxman, and Muggleton to try something new is to be applauded.
There is little doubting the strength of the songs, particularly "Shoot From the Heart", a soul ballad in new-wave drag. If the idea of an artist and producer exploiting the rapid developments of 1980s recording technology is anathema to you, steer clear. But the maligned Ritmo has an innovative, shadowy atmosphere, and its best songs, especially the gothic melodrama, "How Do I Feel", are like rushes of cold night air striking the face. The two bonus tracks comprise a single version and an extended version of the dark but catchy single, "Jeannie No".
Coming in between the two studio albums is Road Noise, Tzuke's first live album (there have since been several more). Don't be misled by the "official bootleg" tagline; this was a professionally recorded, produced, and mixed live album, assembled from a couple of London dates and a festival appearance during the tour supporting Shoot the Moon. Tzuke delivers energetic, faithful interpretations of songs from her first four albums. It's a decent record of a performer at a youthful peak in her talents, backed by a formidable band. Quite why her tenure with Chrysalis was brief is not a matter of public record.
Tzuke popped up a year or two later on an indie label for an album, The Cat Is Out, which built on the synthesized musical ideas of Ritmo. She then jumped to Polydor and Columbia, both of them frustrating, short-lived relationships. But then she surprised everyone by going fully indie in the second part of the 1990s and becoming her own record label. She was ahead of the curve in embracing both self-publishing and the internet, and this happier state of affairs led to some of the strongest albums of her career, in particular another tryst with electronica for 2001's Queen Secret Keeper.
This collection captures an exciting transitional episode in Tzuke's musical evolution. For newcomers, the still-available 24-disc collection may be a daunting way to jump in. This, on the other hand, is the perfect, big-bite-sized opportunity to get acquainted with a talent who has long deserved more critical and public recognition.